Log in to get started!

Don't have an account yet? You can create one below.

Student Instructor
Americans voting in front of a flag

Election Security

This pop-up case is part of the series: Election 2020


Intelligence shows that foreign actors are already interfering in the 2020 U.S. election. How should the United States respond?

The Situation

Free and fair elections are essential to a functioning democracy. However, ensuring the integrity of U.S. elections is a growing national security challenge. As cyber capabilities become more advanced, foreign actors are increasingly targeting elections around the world through cyberattacks and disinformation campaigns in order to influence results, aggravate social and political tensions, and undermine confidence in democratic processes. Election interference not only threatens U.S. sovereignty but can also sow instability that hinders the government’s ability to operate effectively. The U.S. intelligence community has concluded that Russia interfered in both the 2016 U.S. presidential election and the 2018 midterm elections by accessing state election systems and voter data, hacking and leaking Democratic National Committee emails, and spreading disinformation on social media. It does not appear that hackers directly manipulated any voter data, and it is difficult to know how successful the disinformation campaign was. But Russian interference struck a blow at confidence in U.S. elections. Analysts fear that if policymakers cannot ensure public trust in future elections, even the threat of interference could erode democratic systems and aggravate domestic divisions, weakening national security.

Intelligence agencies and security experts warn that the 2020 U.S. elections are already being targeted by Russia and are at risk of being targeted by China and Iran as well. Election interference is expected on multiple fronts. Most directly, foreign actors could launch cyberattacks on U.S. election infrastructure by hacking voting systems to manipulate votes. They could also attack voter registration systems in order to remove certain voters from the rolls, target them for disinformation, or impede their access to the polls. Cyberattacks could target specific campaigns or parties as well in search of damaging information to leak. Furthermore, disinformation campaigns on social media threaten to influence the outcome of an election and exacerbate partisan divisions. Even a small-scale or failed attack on an election would create mistrust in the democratic process. With elections fast approaching, policymakers face a renewed challenge to safeguard U.S. elections against foreign threats and to determine how to respond to actors seeking to interfere in the United States’ democracy.

Decision Point

The U.S. intelligence community has reported that foreign actors, including Russia, have mounted campaigns to interfere in the upcoming U.S. 2020 election process. These are likely multipronged efforts involving disinformation campaigns and cyberattacks on election infrastructure or candidates. If not addressed, these efforts could undermine U.S. election integrity and damage public trust in democratic systems, potentially for years to come. The National Security Council (NSC) is meeting to advise the president on how the government should safeguard U.S. national elections. Members will need to address current insecurity in the country’s election systems and determine if and how the United States should counter foreign interference.

NSC members should consider any combination of the following options:

  • Prepare to employ cyber counterattacks and sanctions against perpetrators. Offensive measures could safeguard future elections, but they risk diplomatic fallout and do not secure current election systems.

  • Provide federal funding to bolster election infrastructure and establish a task force to create election day contingency plans, oversee preelection testing on ballot machines, and provide cybersecurity training and support. This option enhances security but requires significant funds.

  • Take executive action to regulate disinformation on social media and create a public awareness and media literacy campaign to educate voters. This option would address disinformation but not election infrastructure. In addition, regulations on social media could face criticism for limiting freedom of expression.

  • Maintain current election practices while continuing to monitor and disclose threats and warn foreign actors of severe consequences if interference continues. This option would require the least commitment of resources but would not improve the security of upcoming elections.

More Pop-Up Cases

nurses carrying influenza patient

In the early fall of 1918, a second wave of influenza is spreading, and World War I is waning, but not yet over. As the pandemic begins to grow more deadly, how can the United States balance the need to bring the war to an end while responding effectively to an increasingly deadly pandemic? (This case was originally published on 09/09/2020).

Cartoon of a man holding a bomb exploding that says "Zimmerman Note" on it

British intelligence has decoded a secret German telegram to Mexico that proposes an alliance against the United States and shares Germany’s plans to resume submarine warfare against U.S. shipping in the coming month. How should the United States respond?

Illustration of boat exploding at a harbor

After the mysterious explosion of the USS Maine in Havana, Cuba, the United States has decided to go to war with Spain. President William McKinley and his advisors now need to decide how to intervene against Spanish colonial rule in Cuba and what U.S. war aims should be.


Do you find pop-up cases helpful?

We are looking for feedback from instructors!

If you have used a pop-up case in the classroom, please fill out our pop-up case survey or email us at modeldiplomacy@cfr.org and let us know how it went. And be sure to follow us on Twitter at @Model_Diplomacy to hear about our most recent pop-up cases the moment they come out.

For Instructors

Use the following case to spark discussion and help students to think through what they would do if they were decision makers. View the Pop-Up Case Guidelines for some inspiration for how to structure your conversation.

Classroom handouts

PDF / 2.9 MB